Pen Friends

In my quest for knowledge about the works and life of Elizabeth Goudge, my research has lead me to strange little odds and ends of information, which when put together add a piece to Elizabeth’s tapestry.

One of these was an ebay purchase I made a number of years ago. Another writer I admire is Rosemary Sutcliff and I noticed that a hard backed 1st edition of her Arthurian Trilogy was up for sale. I won the bid and waited for the books. When they came I was pleased to find that their condition was as described. When I opened them they were all three inscribed “Elizabeth with much love Rosemary” and from one of them fell a letter, which had been written by the author.

I have written about this find elsewhere, so lets just say that after a bit of detective work, I found out that Rosemary Sutcliff and Elizabeth had been friends, and both writers belonged to the same literary agent. Elizabeth wrote the forward to one of Rosemary’s over looked works “The Rider of the White Horse.” A quiet, descriptive novel set during England’s civil war.

“There is nothing nicer than being asked to write an introduction to a favourite book. ” Elizabeth writes, “But at the same time it is a difficult task. It is like being asked to describe the charm of a face you love. If you did not love the face so much, and even more the person behind the face, it would be easy.”

This book was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1967, and chronicles the military career of Thomas Fairfax and the fate of his family during the civil war. A theme Elizabeth had already visited in The White Witch.

But a deeper connection to Elizabeth’s work is the significance that the herb of grace, or rue has for the Fairfax family.

Anne Fairfax is waiting to meet her husband on a brief visit from the fighting in a dark, disused chapel. She is anxious, grieving the death of her youngest child  and restless, knowing that her husband has never loved her as she has him. She takes comfort from the ancient preaching cross that is part of the chapel, its rugged strength and symbolism.

“Somebody else, she realised suddenly, had felt the warmth as she felt it. for on the chest of rough black oak that stood against the wall below it, an unknown hand had set a knot of blue flowers in an earthen cup. For Anne they rang a small silver note of memory. but it was a moment before she realised that the flower was rue. The Herb of Grace. The Herb of Grace springing from the ruins among which the wild white unicorn trampled with his proud shining hooves; Herb of Grace set here at the foot of the old preaching cross that was the living heart of the besieged church, as though for a statement of faith.”
(Rider of the White Horse Rosemary Sutcliff)

This book contains many of the themes we have come to recognise in Elizabeth’s books, dealing with unrequited love, faith and family in a way that is familiar to readers of her work.

That they read each others work and seemed to have been inspired and enlightened by them is obvious.  Elizabeth admires Rosemary’s ability to map battle scenes, a prospect she admits to finding difficult. Although she has no trouble in mapping out the intimate worlds her families inhabit. I’m sure Rosemary found the emotional depth Elizabeth gave to her characters something that commanded respect.

It is tempting to think that the symbolism of the blue flowered rue in Elizabeth’s book “The Herb of Grace” slipped into Rosemary’s unconscious to emerge years later as a valuable motif in her civil war novel.

Elizabeth also wrote promotional pieces for Rosemary’s excellent Arthurian epic “Sword at Sunset”, in which she praises Rosemary for so identifying with the characters that “the distant time, so difficult for many of us to realise, glows with present reality.”

At this time of fire light and lengthening evenings, find companionship, open a good book and reacquaint yourself with old friends or make some knew ones by exploring one of Elizabeth’s worlds.







  1. How wonderful to read this. I read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books as a teenager and loved them.The convent school I attended encouraged us to read these novels and stocked them in the libraries. It makes me happy to think that Elizabeth was friends with Rosemary Sutcliffe.
    Thanks for printing this.

  2. Wow! I never realized Elizabeth and Rosemary were friends. This bit of information delights me. I discovered both authors during my teen years, and have loved and collected both of their books all my life. I have read both their autobiographies, grieving with their challenges and their lonely times. It is such a delight to discover that they found each other and in their friendship nourished each other’s writing and souls.

  3. Thank you for this delightful post about two of my favourite authors. I feel I must point out that Rosemary’s name was Sutcliff not the more usual Sutcliffe. It’s a mistake that’s often made and I hope you won’t mind me pointing it out.

  4. Gracious! what an extraordinary find.
    Thank you for this post. I am reminded that I read a book by Rosemary Sutcliff when I was a child but, sadly, am now unable to remember which one. I know it was set in Roman times and that I enjoyed it very much. I have never read another but now I feel I must start again ~ albeit almost 60 years later.
    There is a film inspired by ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ ~ with Donald Sutherland no less ~ which was rather scary and enough to keep me awake at night. A good film if you can catch it though.
    Thank you for providing a platform and a community for talking about Elizabeth G and her books~ and to everyone else for their interesting comments.

  5. Thank you for a charming post, and for reminding me that I love Rosemary Sutcliff’s books. Now for a hunt that will no doubt bring me hours of pleasure.

  6. I remember well, as a child, being enthralled by Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth. It was broadcast on Children’s Hour on the radio. This would have been in the fifties, early sixties. How grateful I am for the radio. Radio allows one to use one’s imagination.

    • That was a great book. The modern film version a few years ago was, however, disappointing. Completely agree with you about the radio.
      Living in Germany I really appreciate my internet radio which gives me access to some really good drama and other programmes.

  7. Truly a magical moment to discover the letter and inscriptions. Friendships between authors must be a very special kind of connection. I so enjoy your posts! I’ve never read a Sutcliff book so will look for one in this season (in the northern hemisphere) of cozy reading and tea sipping! Thank you.

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